The killing of two fans in Turkey put Leeds United under intense scrutiny. Mark Rutter says its response shows how far the club has come
“Welcome to civilisation.” So read the banner displayed outside Elland Road before Leeds United’s UEFA Cup semi-final second leg against Galatasaray. Produced for the benefit of the TV cameras as a barbed message to watching Turks, this bold claim to the moral high ground must have caused a few raised eyebrows among English fans who have visited this part of west Yorkshire at various times over the past 30 years.
However, during the 1990s, and particularly under the stewardship of chairman Peter Ridsdale, the club has advanced so far forward in its public relations that the fans’ proclamation does not seem as incongruous as it once would have.
Following the tragic events in Istanbul, the tie inevitably became the focus of massive media attention and left many supporters with mixed emotions regarding its outcome and significance. Like many others, I thought the final score secondary next to the sorrow felt for the families of the two murdered men.
The melancholy, almost sombre atmosphere at Elland Road, at least until the kick-off, contrasted sharply with the buzz before the fourth round epic against Roma. The thought shared by thousands that “it could have been me” left a dark mood over what should have been the club’s biggest cup tie for a quarter of a century. And although the adrenalin flowed during the game itself, the sense of relief inside the stadium when it was over was almost tangible.
Elsewhere in the city, however, events were turning ugly. There were enough incidents to remind us that the club’s hooligan problem is still not that far from the surface of a generally well behaved fan base. With no Turkish fans present, those who thought violence was an appropriate response turned their attention to whatever or whoever was available. Two pubs in the city centre were trashed after Hagi’s early goal and after the match there was a serious confrontation between police and fans outside another pub near the ground. The stoning of a coach carrying Galatasaray dignitaries naturally received far wider coverage.
This behaviour was in sharp contrast to the appeal for calm that Peter Ridsdale issued in national newspapers on the day of the game and undermined the efforts he had put in to protect further damage either to people or to the club’s image. Given the violence that did occur, his insistence that the Galatasaray fans should stay away seemed like the only sensible option.
To appreciate fully the positive and responsible steps taken by the club following the deaths in Taksim Square, you have to remember how recently it is that Leeds have had quite a different image. The riot at the European Cup final in 1975, which resulted in a three-year ban from Europe, marked the beginning both of Leeds’ decline on the pitch and of the hooligans’ most violent era. From a UEFA perspective the Leeds fans have “previous”. This was compounded, in England at least, by relegation in 1982 and the subsequent high profile disturbances at Birmingham, Bradford and Bournemouth.
In the Nineties the club has taken concrete steps, though not always without prompting, to change things for the better. The away match membership scheme, initiated to monitor those intent on trouble, has made a major contribution to improving behaviour. The open selling of racist newspapers at Elland Road was confronted by the fans and ultimately banned. The part of the ground that was most badly affected by racist behaviour is now the family stand. Indeed, the discount pricing in this stand is one reason why the club’s average income per seat is almost half that of some Premiership clubs.
The club’s attitude can be gauged not only from its investment in local community projects, but also in one-off gestures to fans. For the first three rounds of the UEFA Cup all tickets cost £12, and those who went to Moscow for the postponed game against Spartak were refunded £150, though the club was under no legal obligation. Ridsdale has been known to phone fans in person after they have contacted the club.
Ridsdale’s standing in the game has soared due to his conduct during the Galatasaray saga, and rightly so. When he discovered that the Istanbul hospital where Kevin Speight and Chris Loftus had been taken had run out of blood, he sent his driver out to collect further supplies, which he paid for on his credit card. As was widely reported, he stayed there for hours consoling friends and relatives of the bereaved.
It was fitting that it was his name the fans first sang at Elland Road during the second leg. In his programme notes Ridsdale wrote: “We shall be talking to both families shortly about our intention to provide something that will be lasting to the memory of Christopher and Kevin. The incidents must not be allowed to pale into history. There must be a constant reminder that violence has no part in football.” Now there is a civilised man.
From WSC 160 June 2000. What was happening this month